Connected and Inclusive Local Collaboration Under ESSA

By Sophie Green, Program Manager | Partners for Each and Every Child

It can be tempting for those of us acting in the national policy sphere to see the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as an opportunity to start fresh. But “stakeholder engagement” is not new, and requiring that it be part of policy decision-making is not special to ESSA.

I have spent the last several months building resources for local leaders (district superintendents, school principals, charter school leaders, and others) around ESSA and engagement. As part of that process, I have spoken with local education leaders from across the country - leaders that serve rural and urban communities, communities with strong political differences, and communities whose students face persistent barriers to equity. To a person, every leader is already doing the important work of communicating with, learning from, and partnering with students, families, educators, and community members. They all know that this kind of partnership is key to succeeding in their ambitious efforts.

It is essential that leaders ensure our highest-need students and communities are present, involved, and leading in all of our efforts—from plan development to policy implementation.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education (US ED) appears to be abdicating its role in making sure states adhere to statutory requirements: federal leaders are not requiring states to report on consultation in their ESSA State Plans, and US ED’s initial (to some, surprisingly thoughtful) reviews of the plans already submitted by states have been followed by staffing changes, procedural changes, and rumors of upcoming lenience.

To fill this gap, some states are taking up the responsibility of engaging with stakeholders to support the transition to ESSA and the implementation of their ESSA State Plans. This trend, along with recognition on the part of several national organizations that community involvement in ESSA implementation is vitally important for the success of reform efforts, is a promising indication that states and their advocate counterparts are positioning themselves to support engagement efforts at the local level going forward.

Yet even with existing engagement efforts, local community needs are not being met. It is not enough.

Moving forward, we need to focus our collective attention on the way in which partnerships and collaborative leadership can be part of a thoughtful and interconnected strategy for school improvement that is properly funded, staffed, and sustained. Current efforts are often disjointed or ad hoc, and therefore do not meaningfully—or measurably—impact policy decisions or student outcomes. And, even if they did, many do not effectively reach community members with the highest need, including students and families that speak a language other than English, representatives of students in low-wealth or low-income families, or students, families, and teachers of color.

Inclusive and transparent local governance leads to better decision-making, and it encourages students and their communities to become partners in setting and achieving collective goals. Further, by enabling resources to be shared and combined, partnerships among nonprofit organizations, community members, and local leaders build on a school’s ability to develop and implement ambitious strategies for meeting student needs.  

Partners for and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), with the support of Education First and input from over 30 national organizations and local leaders, have developed a new resource to inform local engagement efforts: Meaningful Local Engagement Under ESSA: A Handbook for LEA and School Leaders.

In this moment where the state and national focus is beginning to shift to local implementation, local education leaders—both in government and in the wider community—have the opportunity to build on good policies and practices and reexamine our assumptions about what “meaningful” engagement means. As outlined in our Handbook, the most impactful collaboration with communities should be inclusive, well-informed, and iterative. Examples from local leaders include:

  • Inclusion of parent/family member participants on leadership teams that represent various underserved or historically underrepresented groups (e.g. English learners, families of color)—who are then empowered to lead policy conversations at school events (parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, school theater events)

  • Use of phone trees, a Facebook page, and the local community center to spread information about events, decisions, and to answer questions

  • Development and sustainment of partnerships with local non-profit organizations, emergency services and other public agencies, universities, faith-based organizations or leaders, and other community members and leaders to pool financial or material resources and expertise, and to reach more diverse groups of stakeholders.

However communities and school leaders connect, it is essential that leaders ensure our highest-need students and communities are present, involved, and leading in all of our efforts—from plan development to policy implementation. We must ensure that the needs of all students are represented, their voices heard, and their highest expectations incorporated into our decision-making. We must ensure that our efforts to work with and learn from our communities are part of a deliberate and ongoing strategy. We must take the opportunity offered by ESSA, regardless of federal or state oversight, to do better for all of our children.